Once relegated to the declining, aged golfer, they finally got their spot in the limelight over the last couple years. They went from obscurity to sitting in the bags of Major champions. From that success came a firestorm of scrutiny and a few ominous quotes from golf’s ruling organizations. After all, a few victories by some extremely talented men is surely reason enough to send them back to the dark corners they belong, right?
This article isn’t about the long putter though. It’s about the people that are lying in wait to remedy the next great danger to the sanctity of the game.
The great game of golf is jointly governed for both amateurs and professionals by two organizations, the USGA and the R&A. As many readers know, their decisions affect not only the rules of the game, but the equipment that we play it with. They’ve issued a mission statement of sorts, titled “Joint Statement of Principles”, that explains what they do and what they are trying to accomplish in governing equipment. It’s actually an interesting read and can be found here. The last sentence possibly best describes their intent in governing equipment when it says, “The R&A and the USGA believe that the principles stated in this document will, when carefully applied, serve the best interests of the game of golf.” The cynic in me finds a great deal of half-truths in this joint statement. I’d argue that while their intent is sound, their execution leaves much to be desired.
In the Joint Statement of Principles, we are told that, “the R&A and the USGA continue to believe that the retention of a single set of rules for all players of the game, irrespective of ability, is one of golf’s greatest strengths.” Interestingly, the next two paragraphs are centered completely around their concerns that “highly skilled golfers” hit the golf ball too far. Another interesting observation is that the document never discusses golfers of lower skill, aside from saying they should play by the same rules as everybody else. Why is such a tiny, overachieving fraction of the game’s participants so influential on its rules and equipment?
I thought it would be worthwhile to look at the way that baseball has approached rules changes in the last century, specifically regarding equipment, since it’s a game that evolved quite a bit from its beginnings. What I found is that the last published rule change regarding equipment was in 1975, when it was decided that cow leather, as opposed to horse leather, could be used to make up the cover of the ball. Obviously, baseball has had its own challenges in the last 20 years, but it’s still a wildly popular game that has adapted well without creating a large amount of confusion for its fans or amateur players. Baseball has recognized that many people play the same rules as professionals, but also understands that amateurs may find greater enjoyment using equipment and fields of play that better match their skill-set.
This is an excerpt from the MLB Rule Book:
“We recognize that many amateur and non professional organizations play their games under professional rules, and we are happy to make our rules available as widely as possible. It is well to remember that specifications as to fields, equipment, etc., may be modified to meet the needs of each group”.
Let’s also look at soccer, which is the most popular and played sport in the world today. It’s governed by a ruling body similar to the game of golf. A very interesting quote from the International Football Association Board refers to their reluctance to continually change the rules by answering the question, “Why have there been so few changes to the Laws over the years?”
“Why is the IFAB considered to be a conservative organisation? The answer to these questions is straightforward: the attraction of the game of football resides in its simplicity. And as guardian to its Laws, the IFAB seeks to preserve the original seeds on which the football has blossomed so spectacularly.”
So what are the best interests of golf, or as the USGA puts it, “the good of the game”? A couple very basic ideals come to my mind and they are echoed by the organization.
- Promoting and expanding the game.
- Preserving its traditions.
In some ways, the USGA has been doing a good job in recent years when it comes to promoting and attempting to expand the game. The Tee it Forward initiative is a good example of that, though a recent article on THP does suggest that it’s possibly not being executed properly for all types of players. However, continually altering rules and equipment standards is doing nothing to help the game. The truth is, making an already difficult, confusing, time-consuming, and expensive game more difficult, confusing, time-consuming, and expensive is counterintuitive to making it attractive. Ironically, all of this equipment was approved for legal play at one time or another.
Here is a somewhat hilarious quote from the R&A’s website that answers the question, “How do golfers know that the equipment they buy conforms to the Rules?” They answer, “This is a good question and, despite sounding as though the answer should be quite simple, it is actually fairly long-winded. The truth is that most golfers probably don’t know for SURE that the equipment they buy or use conforms, but they generally trust that it does.”
It’s hard to claim these changes are done in the name of preserving traditions when the game (and its equipment) has constantly evolved over the last century. While we play the same game, we haven’t played it in the same manner as the first golfers did for decades. The list of equipment evolutions is nearly endless, but it didn’t have to be this way. As I mentioned before, professional baseball last made a fundamental change to their equipment rules in 1975, though there has been some technological advancement for the game’s ‘lesser-skilled’ players. Golf could have done the same thing and we never would have known the difference. The thing is, now we do know the difference and I’m not prepared to change a thing.
Long putters have been played for decades, yet golf’s guardians have just now decided to act. Not surprisingly, statistics do little to show that they are advantageous. Much like the anecdotal vision of the bombing and gouging modern players we heard of a few years ago, we now have the bumbling, yippy putters that need a 43 inch long crutch to win tournaments.
The USGA and R&A are much closer to a fire brigade waiting for that next alarm than anything else. Rather than address scenarios and plan for situations, they wait until there is an issue that ‘needs’ fixing. The have really been playing a game of catch-up for years now, most of it precipitated by advancing technology, skill, and increasing athleticism we see from the world’s elite players. Does anybody remember the groove fiasco from a couple years ago? That was possibly the most poorly managed and blundered equipment rule change in the history of sports. I can’t tell you how many times I heard people express confusion about whether a club’s grooves conformed, whether the rule was applicable to a person’s situation, what effect the change would have, etc. In fact, I answered a question on the topic for one of our readers just a couple weeks ago. In addition to the confusion, equipment companies were forced to alter their manufacturing practices and fire-sale off a good amount of their products. To make matters worse, all of this confusion and cost came with very little return in terms of the game being changed to the average viewer’s eye.
The USGA/R&A alliance is so preoccupied with preparing to change their current rules that they’ve created a document detailing how they plan to go about changing them in the future. Better yet, the rules about how they might change the rules are subject to change as well.
An industry executive spoke to THP on the issue anonymously and said, “The USGA seems to be a group that for whatever reason cannot believe that the world is changing. Players are bigger, stronger, faster, better trained, and more technologically savvy than ever, and it will only get worse. The USGA doesn’t believe that. Equipment manufacturers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year searching for the next great technology. The USGA doesn’t believe they will ever find it. So every time players grow or manufacturers discover something new, it is completely shocking to the USGA and they respond with panic. ‘We need to stop drivers.’ ‘We need to roll back the grooves.’ ‘We need to roll back the ball.’ ‘We need to ban these putters.’ Accepting that the world is changing and preparing for it rather than reacting to it would make the USGA a far more effective organization and their relationship with manufacturers stronger and more pleasant.”
The USGA/R&A alliance do provide many great things to this game, but they need to figure out a way to proactively govern its equipment in a way that will avoid confusion and provide some continuity in the coming decades. I don’t think that rolling back equipment rules is conducive to promoting the game or making it attractive to new or existing golfers , but finding a stopping point should be possible. The USGA employs a number of very capable people that should be able to figure it out. As Ben Franklin said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
THP would love to hear your thoughts on this matter. Please leave your comments below or join in the discussion on the THP forums.